What You Need to Know About College Application Essays

Last updated May 17, 2021 

On your college application to-do list, the essay or personal statement often gets lost among other requirements like transcripts, recommendations, and test scores. Yet, the essay is your one opportunity to represent yourself in your own words and as more than just a collection of data or a list of activities. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has led many schools to adopt test-optional policies, making the essay a particularly vital part of your college application. Discover not only how to write a great college application essay, but also how it is now more important than ever to help you stand out among other hopeful applicants.

Why is your college application essay so important?

Most students will write at least one personal statement or application essay, typically the Common App essay. BestColleges, a college planning resource, reported on a survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling that found “56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement ‘moderately’ or ‘considerably’ important in the admissions process.” This year, since many schools have made test scores optional due to the coronavirus pandemic, qualitative factors, such as the application essay will “carry even more weight in the admissions process,” according to IvyWise

The essay is your chance to make a lasting impression with a unique story that goes beyond impersonal facts and figures. College Confidential interviewed a former George Washington University admissions officer and admissions consultant for College Bound, Jodi Seigel, who explained, “This is an opportunity to really work hard and show not just your ability as a writer, but also to show who you are and represent yourself in the strongest way possible.” Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, adds that the essay is “one of the few tools they have to actually connect with you personally.”

How do you write a great college application essay?

Along with several reasons to prioritize the college application essay, there are several ways to craft an essay that effectively represents you and secures you a spot at one of your preferred colleges:

  • Get Off to a Good (and Early) Start: A busy fall schedule of classes and activities as well as application deadlines running from November through January of a student’s senior year, make the interval between the final months of junior year and the start of senior year the ideal time to get started on a college essay. Therefore, do not procrastinate and start brainstorming! As the College Board says, “The sooner that first draft is underway, the better off you’ll be.” To get started, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post urges students to assemble a list of examples that “sheds light and perspective on who they are, what they value, how they’ve grown and why they are seeking a higher education.”
  • Choose Your Topic Wisely: Once you have compiled a list of potential ideas and prompts to choose from, select a topic that best represents you. According to Strauss that means writing about something that allows the admissions committee “to get to know you as an applicant, including what motivates you, how you think, what you care about, and what matters most to you and why.” Use the essay to illustrate something the rest of your application doesn’t.
  • Be Genuine and Specific: Take the “personal” part of the “personal statement” seriously. “Do this not just in what you say but how you say it,” says Tufts University Associate Director of Admissions, Meredith Reynolds. She also encourages students to write in a voice that  “matches your spoken one” and your personality, so admissions officers will be better able to craft an image of the student they will ultimately admit. Moreover, Strauss advises helping the admissions officers step into your shoes with “vivid examples drawn from your own life […] that can help support important themes or assertions.” Those interviewed for Hannah Muniz’s “7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay” article concur, recommending a “deep,” as opposed to a “broad,” approach that uses a “central anecdote or story” to anchor the essay as well as sensory details that help describe “how something felt or looked.”
  • Proofread and Revise: Once you have a draft written, seek out feedback and embrace constructive criticism. Reynolds from Tufts University advises students to share drafts with two people: “one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well (they can tell you if your essay is genuinely YOU).” Do not forget to check spelling and word count too.

Thinking Ahead

The current health crisis has led to changes to the admissions process that can be frustrating and confusing. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic. If you have the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT, you can still impress admissions with a good score. However, if you do not submit test scores, your application essay, which has always been a way to set you apart from the rest, can now make you shine even brighter. Follow the recommendations for a great admissions essay or consider working with a tutor who will guide you through the process of drafting and proofreading your essay to ensure that it provides a clear and vivid picture of who you are and what makes you the best fit for the schools on your list. 

Written by Christine Sweger

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive function coaching, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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